How to earn enough miles to fly free to Uganda (or anywhere, really!) 1


Posted by Beth | April 19, 2016

Thanks to airline miles the cost of our mission trip to Uganda was significantly reduced because we did not have to pay for our flight. I wrote up this (pretty lengthy) explanation of the step-by-step process that can be used to enough free airline miles to fly to Africa to share with current and future volunteers of Come Let’s Dance, but I thought I’d share it here because really the basic process can be applied to fly anywhere you want to go. Once you’ve selected your destination, you’ll just need to figure out how many points it will cost you to get there on the various airlines.  

Note: The United Mileage Plus Explorer card this strategy centers around is currently only available at the 30,000 point level, so I highly recommend getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred instead if you can’t find the 50,000 mile offer for United. 

By signing up for one or two new rewards-earning credit cards, you can use the sign-up bonus and additional miles accumulated to earn enough frequent flier miles to book an award ticket to Entebbe. This can drastically reduce the cost of your flight, as all you’ll have to pay is the taxes and fees. This is by no means an all-inclusive guide to travel hacking or credit card churning, but a few steps you can follow to save money on your trip to Uganda. We are not financial planners so make sure you understand the risks to your credit and commit to managing your finances responsibly. It takes a little bit of planning and organization, but it is worth it for a free flight!

You can redeem miles to fly to Peru and wander the city streets and alleys of Arequipa, one of our favorite places in South America

You can redeem miles to fly to Peru and wander the city streets and alleys of Arequipa, one of our favorite places in South America

Timing: We recommend you start this process 12-15 months prior to your preferred departure date. Of course that’s not always possible, but the more time you have the better your award options will be. The very minimum from start to finish would be two or three months but that would require quick spending and a bit of luck in flight availability.

Please read all the way through before signing up for a card. Note that you’ll need 80,000 United miles for a round-trip ticket to Uganda, so you may need to sign up for more than one card at a time.

Recent applications: Chase Bank, which we will use in this example, recently announced a “5/24” rule, meaning if you have opened more than five new credit cards in the past 24 months, you will be unable to be approved for a Chase card. You will need to find options from another bank (more info below).

Miles helped us fly to New Zealand free to experience black water tubing in a glowworm cave in Waitomo

Miles helped us fly to New Zealand free to experience black water tubing in a glowworm cave in Waitomo

Steps for Earning the Miles:

  1. Check your credit score (free resources: Credit Karma or Credit Sesame, annualcreditreport.com). A general rule of thumb is your credit should be over 700 to have the best chances of getting approved for a new credit card.
  2. Sign up for a United Mileage Plus account at https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/account/enroll/default. Though United does not fly into Entebbe, several of its Star Alliance partners do, so these are great miles to have.
  3. Search for the highest available offer for the United Mileage Plus Explorer Card from Chase Bank. Note that the typical public offer is usually only 30,000 miles for signing up, but you can almost always find a better offer for 50,000 or 55,000 miles. To find a higher offer here are 3 different approaches:
    1. Try logging in to your Mileage Plus account at United.com. Search for a flight, then a banner should appear advertising the 50,000 mile offer.
    2. Try a Google search for “United Mileage Plus Explorer credit card 50,000 bonus miles offer.” You can typically find an offer on travel hacking blogs.
    3. If you cannot find one, try waiting a few months and searching again, as the public offer periodically increases to 50,000 miles on chase.com.
  4. Once you’ve found the best offer, click through and fill out the online application. Be sure to include your United number. These offers also frequently include a bonus 5,000 miles for adding an authorized user card to your account, which you should be sure to do. You can add a spouse, parent, friend, etc. with their permission. Their credit will not be affected.
  5. If your application is denied or you receive a pending status, try calling Chase Bank’s reconsideration line at 888-245-0625. Be nice to the agent and explain why you want this card and why you are credit worthy. Our go-to line is that we have a lot of business/personal travel coming up on which we want to fly United.
  6. Once approved for the card, you will need to spend $3,000 on the card in the next 90 days in order to receive your 50,000 miles. Ways to hit the minimum spending limit:
    1. Switch all of your “everyday” spend to your new credit card. Use it to pay your gas, groceries, meals, etc.
    2. Pay your bills with your credit card. Pay your electricity, cable, phone, etc. bill with your card. Often times you can also pay your mortgage or rent, but there may be a fee associated with it, so weigh your options when deciding whether or not the fee is worth it.
    3. Time any big purchases you’ve been planning on making during these 90 days.
    4. Buy gift cards you know you will use later. For example, at most grocery stores, office supply stores or gas stations, you can buy Visa gift cards or retail-store specific cards as gifts or to use for yourself for basic expenses in the future.
    5. Pay a friend (or maybe even yourself!) through Paypal or a similar service, but know there will be at least a 3% fee. This is a last resort option as the fees are often not worth it.
  7. Pay off your bill in full every month. The free miles are not worth racking up credit card debt and interest fees! Manage your account easily by using your online account at chase.com (should be an option to set one up right after approval or you can always visit chase.com to create a new account).
  8. Once you have spent $3,000 on the card, your miles should appear in your United account. This can take awhile, as miles won’t post until your statement cycle closes. If you had an offer for 5,000 bonus miles for an authorized user, make sure you use that person’s card at least once to trigger the bonus. It can be any small purchase, it just needs to be used once.
  9. In order to book a round-trip award ticket with United miles from the USA to Africa, you will need at least 80,000 miles. At this point you hopefully have at least 58,000 miles (50,000 sign up bonus + 5,000 authorized user bonus + 3,000 points for the $3,000 you have already spent on your card). Here are your options to make up the remaining miles:
    1. Book a one-way ticket with your miles (40,000 miles) and pay for your return trip (or vice versa, whichever is cheaper).
    2. Use this same process to sign for another credit card that earns United miles or points that can be transferred into United miles, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest points. See this post for a full run-down: http://millionmilesecrets.com/2013/07/10/earn-united-miles/. I’ve also added my thoughts on which cards work the best on the bottom of this post, titled “Second Card Options”.
    3. Credit any actual flights flown on United or Star Alliance partners, in the past 12 months or future flights, to your United account. So if you just returned from Uganda and you flew Ethiopian Air, you can retroactively earn miles for that flight by visiting https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/contact/mileageplus/RequestMileageCredit.aspx.
    4. Spend $22,000 more on your United card (earns 1 mile per every dollar spent). So even if you can only spend $5,000 more (does not have to be in first 90 days), you’re another 5,000 miles closer.
    5. Earn extra miles through various MileagePlus partners, https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/earn/default.aspx
  10. There is an annual fee on your card of $95. It is waived the first year as a bonus for signing up, but on your card-member anniversary expect it to show up on your statement. If you do not want to keep the card open, feel free to cancel it once the miles have posted to your United account.
    1. For minimal impact on your credit score, we recommend waiting at least 10 months before cancelling the card.
    2. If you forget and the annual fee gets charged, you typically have at least 30 days after it appears on your statement to call and cancel the card for a full refund. You can always use the phone number on the back of your card.
    3. You can also try calling the number on the back of your card and asking for any retention offers that may be available. Sometimes banks may waive the annual fee if they want to keep your business. Just ask for the retention department.
    4. You do not have to have the card open at the time of your award flight, but if you do you may receive priority access and boarding (but only when flying on United, likely not its partners, so not a great reason to keep card open usually).

(Side Note: Repeatedly opening and canceling credit cards will damage your credit score a bit, but if spaced out over several years it will have little impact. There is also risk in showing the credit card companies this open/close pattern as it may hinder them from approving you for a new card down the road.)

Europe is a great option for redeeming airline miles. We loved our time in Brussels.

Europe is a great option for redeeming airline miles. We loved our time in Brussels.

Redeeming Your Miles:

  1. Visit united.com and search for award flights on the ‘Book Travel’ feature on the home page. Be sure to click the box labeled “Search for award travel.” United opens their award schedule exactly 11 months prior, and typically the earlier you book the more availability you can find.
  2. Do not give up if you don’t see availability right away! Here are ways to keep trying:
    1. If your dates are flexible try searching different dates. The website usually shows a calendar with availability. You want to look for SAVER AWARD level flights only, as these are the only ones that cost 80,000 miles, the standard awards will be much more.
    2. Call United to speak with a reservation agent to help you search at 1-800-864-8331. If they are able to find a flight for you, ask them to waive the phone booking fee, since you were unable to make the booking online.
    3. As a last resort, you may need to do research on your own to be able to piece together your ticket online or feed the information for the flight you prefer to the phone agent. Star Alliance (United) partners that fly to EBB include: Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, and Egypt Air. You can use Wikipedia’s airline and airport pages to find out which airports these airlines fly through to search for your flight step-by-step. For example, if you know Brussels Airlines flies from Brussels into Entebbe, you can first search United’s website for that flight, and then search separately for a flight from your home city in the USA to Brussels. If you are flying out of a smaller airport, try searching from your home airport to a United hub (Denver, Chicago, Newark), then from that airport to Brussels, then Brussels to Entebbe. You may need to try this with several partner airlines/cities. You can then book the flight by using the ‘Multiple Destinations’ search tool on United’s ‘Book Travel’ page. Or you can call United again and give them the specific flight numbers you’d like. This can be very time consuming, thus having flexible dates and booking early makes things easier.
  3. Purchase your award flight by redeeming your miles and paying the necessary taxes and fees. These range anywhere from $12 to several hundred dollars total. 
Headed to Africa on miles? Consider a side trip to the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania to visit The Rock bar and restaurant.

Headed to Africa on miles? Consider a side trip to the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania to visit The Rock bar and restaurant.

Other things to consider:

  • You can usually get a free “stopover” as a part of your award flight for no extra cost or miles. A stopover is exactly what it sounds like. It allows you to stop in a city for as many days as you want (booked ahead of time of course) and then return to the airport to finish your flight to your final destination. When flying from the US to Uganda, Europe is typically the easiest stopover. In our example above, if you are flying through Brussels anyway, you could spread out your flights a few days apart to give yourself time to explore Belgium. If you’d prefer to see Paris instead, you can book a flight from US to Paris, spend time there, then fly to Brussels and on to Entebbe. You can basically add a “free” vacation stop in most European cities before or after your Uganda trip at no extra flight cost. With South African Airways you could also stopover in South Africa (there is a nonstop form New York to Johannesburg). More information here: http://travelisfree.com/2015/05/05/how-to-book-stopovers-with-miles-online/
  • If you fly on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul and have a long layover (six hours or longer), the airline will pay for your hotel for the night or send you on a free tour of the city during the day. The tour includes nice meals, professional guides and a high end tour bus. More info here: http://www.istanbulinhours.com
  • Your United Mileage Plus Explorer card will include two free United Club Lounge passes. If you’re flying through one of these cities be sure to get to the airport early or swing in during a layover for free food, drinks and wifi. https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/airport/lounge/locations/default.aspx
  • All the examples above are focused on Star-Alliance flight options, which can be booked with United miles. In my opinion that’s the easiest way because there are the most options, but there are a few other choices.
    • KLM and Kenya Airways are a part of the Sky Team member alliance, which can be booked using Delta miles. You can earn Delta miles by signing up for the Delta-branded cards from American Express, or by transferring your American Express Membership Rewards points into Delta miles.
    • Qatar Airways is part of the One World Alliance, so flights can be booked using American Airlines miles. You can earn AAdvantage miles by signing up for the plethora of American Airlines-branded cards from Citi Bank or Barclaycard, or by transferring your Citi Thank You points or SPG points into AAdavntage miles. More info: http://thepointsguy.com/2015/04/choosing-the-best-card-for-american-airlines-flyers/
Of course you can even use miles to fly domestically. We used Southwest Air miles to fly to Lake Tahoe to ski last year.

Of course you can even use miles to fly domestically. We used Southwest Air miles to fly to Lake Tahoe to ski last year.

Second Card Options

If you are looking to sign up for a second card to get to the 80,000 miles and nab the full free flight, here are what we consider the best picks.

  1. If you have a small business (or you do anything that could count as a small business—mowing lawns, selling jewelry, etc)., sign up for the United Mileage Plus Explorer Business card from Chase Bank for at least 50,000 more miles. You can sign up for a personal and a business card from Chase on the SAME day.
  2. The Chase Sapphire card sign-up bonus is 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred directly to United miles. But since this is also a personal card, you likely won’t be approved on the same day, and will need to wait at least 91 days to complete this application. This card earns 2x points on ALL purchases, so you will rack up miles quicker.
  • Sign up for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, or the Capital One Venture card, both should have a sign-up bonus of at least 40,000 points. Since these are from different banks than Chase, it is fine to sign up for one of these on the SAME day as your initial United Mileage Plus Explorer card. Both cards also earn 2x miles on all purchases. These points are redeemed differently, so would pair nicely with option (a) above. If you use this credit card to pay for part of your flight, then you can reimburse yourself using your Arrival or Venture points (40,000 points = $400).

Learn More:

  • Check out our blog’s “Getting Started” section at gettingmypointshigh.com
  • Feel free to email Caleb and Bethany Tegtmeier at gettingmypointshigh@gmail.com if you have any specific questions.
  • The more travel hacking blogs you read, the more you’ll understand the “hobby” and the more tips and tricks you’ll pick up. Some of our favorites are Boardingarea.com, The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets, Travel is Free and Doctor of Credit.

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